"Shut Up and Sing"
This is one case in which everything I hoped for was realized in a documentary. From years of footage of public appearances and in the privacy of dressing rooms and their home digs, director Barbara Kopple shines a powerful light on the musical act and phenomenon that is The Dixie Chicks. The best part is in the astuteness of the editing to present with great clarity the evolution of the group from their emergence as country music dynamos to the aftermath of a scandal with political and quasi-religious undertones that might have torn them apart but made them stronger.
After Martie Maguire, Natalie Maines and Emily Robison formed their act and established themselves at the peak of country music, riding the clouds of adoration from Nashville to Austin and the world beyond, lead singer Maines, the main mouthpiece on stage bridging songs with patter and light commentary, said something to connect the group with the mood of their London audience, which was demonstrating their convictions about George Bush's impending invasion of Iraq. "Just so you know, we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas," she tosses off as a remark not likely to mean much beyond the walls of London's Shepherds Bush Empire theatre. (The name reference is purely coincidental).
But the bantering words were in a context never heard from a country music act. You might expect political thought and activism in a U2 concert, but country relates to an altogether more homey, personal province of human experience. To take a political side that's 180 degrees from your fan base is stunningly serious, if not suicidal. To which it must be added that Bush was enjoying an 80% approval rating at the time.
Not soon after the redneck/gun-loving/right-wing/bible-thumping majority of Southern politics caught wind of the comment, their firestorm of wrath and revenge began. Very quickly and in a highly organized fashion, no radio station in the former confederacy dared play a track of the Dixie Chicks for fear of being boycotted or worse, most of them using that as a politically correct explanation of their policy, without much doubt that it was being done also out of their own deliberate intent that the group was headed for hell if they had anything to do with it.
The subsequent development and evolution of the band as a reaction to their former core audience's condemnation is an extraordinary story of adaptation and growth, giving Maines and her partners a challenge without a guidebook. The richly detailed observation of this process is the content of the film, making the observer feel the privilege of going through it with Kopple's cameras providing extraordinary intimacy and fullness.
Certainly, this is a dimension of entertainment few artists of their stature have had to confront, including nasty verbal abuse, boycotting and, in one glaring instance, a threat of murder. Which tells us something about the mental/emotional level making up part of the Bush base.
In sharp distinction is the ensemble's outstanding ability, within the maelstrom, to edge away from their country roots and restyle themselves musically. Their adoption of rock and roll with country kickers has certainly expanded the vision of their song themes and, I believe, given them more substance as an act than they might have ever otherwise reached for.
They have the character, as the movie shows, to do something with that. These are very hot ladies -- as much for their looks as for their smart minds, values and talent. If you didn't admire and respect them before you see this film, I think you will, after.
It's a highly proficient film, with excellent color matching of footage from a great range of sources, as the final credit list of lensers indicate. There's enough of their music in it to tell you what they're about and glimpses of their song building out of their experience and from their gut to give you insight into their creative process. All in all a piece of work of considerable value even if you prefer Beethoven.
The DVD of "Shut Up and Sing"
Not Ready to Make Nice
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To be released February 20 -- Available for pre-order now!
List of reviews:
(sample frames from movies photographed
by Jules Brenner)
Books, DVDs, Music, Restaurants
Emily Robison, Natalie Maines and Martie Maguire
The Dixie Chicks, heroines, standing their ground.
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The DVD of "Shut Up and Sing"